The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden was a book I couldn’t put down. Non-stop narrative momentum takes us from Macon to 1930s Harlem to 1940s Paris to Buchenwald to 1950s Trenton and beyond with many stops in between. Lives centered on blues and jazz elicit passages of pure poetry: “On Saturday nights, white hankie in hand, Lizard showcased his gift--blowing high notes that scraped the ceiling, notes so low people half-expected to see clefts and trebles scuttling across the floor. Happy notes, sad notes, sexy notes, deep-in-the-bone weary notes. Notes that recounted stories so primal, Lizard couldn’t have had an earthly acquaintance with them--but there they were, streaming from his trumpet like ribbons.”
Harlan builds a life out of his music that takes him places, though his parents’ home in Harlem remains the heart of it all. In Harlem he meets his “brother from another mother,” Lizard, brushes shoulders with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, drinks endlessly, smokes pot, sleeps with women, plays his guitar.
In the midst of all this living there’s tragedy. In youth and in adulthood come events so shocking and sad (and so brilliantly, memory-searingly written) that I had to put the book down and take deep breaths and wait for the numbness to fade before I could resume. Fortunately, McFadden has a deft touch when it comes to injecting humor into the story, and there were countless times where I found myself grinning or chuckling.
The Book of Harlan is a book about a life. A man and those who live in his orbit. The story of Harlan but also the story of his mother and father and friends and lovers. From the Harlem Renaissance to World War II to the Civil Rights Movement, here is the American history of a man and those who loved him. Read it.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
60 Minutes recently aired a report titled "Heroin in the Heartland" about the opiate epidemic in Ohio.* A long-time resident of Dayton and Columbus, it was an eye-opening report for me, and I wanted to know more. Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones, is a well-researched, well-written, wide-ranging work of journalism about the opiate epidemic in the United States. Quinones tracks the black tar heroin trade from Xalisco, Mexico to communities all over the U.S., including Columbus and Portsmouth, Ohio. We hear the stories of dealers and doctors, addicts and law enforcement officers, parents and therapists. We see the human cost as teens and pain patients becoming addicted to Oxicontin after pharmaceutical salespeople sell doctors on the drug with the promise that its slow-release formula makes it hard to become addicted to. The evidence to back this claim? A letter to the editor--letter to the editor!--published in the New England Journal of Medicine and known as Porter and Jick. The letter highlights the findings of a single small study, but it was pitched as rigorous fact by pharmaceutical company Purdue as they marketed their opiate painkiller. Pain clinics that were nothing more than pill mills and a black market in prescription drugs followed, and when the price became too high, the black tar heroin was there to fulfill an economic need--cheap and high quality and as easy to get as ordering a pizza (as Quinones makes clear again and again). It's astounding the toll all of this has taken: ruined lives, impossible to kick addictions, and overdose deaths. Quinones covers all of this and more in a book that's important to read no matter how far removed from this problem you believe you are.
*Only after writing this review did I go to the author's blog, True Tales, and read his statements on the 60 Minutes piece and how he feels he should have received credit for his contribution to the story. He makes a strong argument and it's well worth checking out.
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Ray Stickle reads a lot and writes daily. For progress reports, updates on any upcoming releases, and the occasional thought or two, check here.